Select Committee on International Development First Report


Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons


31. The largest movement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the last couple of years, including during the current crisis, have been due primarily to food insecurity and not conflict. The UNHCR has reported that many people are already too weak or lack the resources to move from their villages - they are too weak even to become displaced[50]. Table 5 shows the main refugee and IDP populations before September 11. The figure for refugees in Pakistan includes 1.2 million refugees residing in refugee villages and about 800,000 other Afghans integrated with the local population. The figure for Russia includes asylum-seekers pending temporary asylum. The number of refugees in North America and Australia can be broken down as follows: Canada - 9,300; USA- 4,300; Australia - 3,600. The figures for IDPs are UNOCHA figures and includes only people who have become displaced since the summer of 2000. They do not include the sizeable numbers displaced earlier into Kabul or the Panjshir Valley from the Shomali region.

Location of Refugees
Central Asia Republics Republics
Nth. America/Australia

Location of IDPsFrom
BadakshanNearby areas
Northern regionNearby areas
Hazarajat regionHazarajat/nearby areas
HeratNorth west
Southern ProvincesVarious

Table 5: Main Populations of Afghan Refugees & Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) [51]


32. Large numbers of refugees fled Afghanistan in the wake of the Soviet invasion and subsequent factional fighting. The refugee situation is complex and unpredictable with some refugees returning to Afghanistan as others flee, while some remain permanently in exile. In recent years, movements of refugees in the region, although on a much larger scale than elsewhere in the world, are beginning to resemble the same complex mix of genuine refugees, migrant workers and others not considered in need of international protection[52]. Many of the refugees who have fled the country before or during this conflict have been skilled and educated people. This has had a knock-on effect for essential services like health and education inside Afghanistan[53].

Figure 2: Afghan Refugee Populations, 1980­2001 (as of 1 January)[54]. Note: the total in the graph includes refugees in Russia and the Central Asian Republics as well as those inside Pakistan and Iran. In addition to these figures, there are

tens of thousands of Afghan refugees in other countries around the world. However, no accurate estimate of their total number exists.

33. Pakistan has been a generous host to between one and three million refugees for over twenty years. Donor fatigue is a familiar term but in Pakistan they talk of host fatigue too. Dr Mukarji said "We need to recognise what [the Government of Pakistan has] done for over 20 years with two, almost three million refugees with their own resources and their own capacity and their own willingness to cope¼"[55]. The population peaked in the early 1990s before large numbers of refugees returned to Afghanistan following the fall of the Najibullah government. Although the UNHCR has always supported the refugees, the Commissioner for Afghan Refugees, Mohammad Naeem Kahn, told us during our visit to Peshawar that there was a noticeable decline in interest in refugee issues in the late 1980s with the signing of the Geneva Peace Accords and the Soviet withdrawal. He further explained that 1995 was the crucial year in the relationship between the Government of Pakistan and the international community over refugees. UNHCR funding was being cut and services in camps were being withdrawn. For the Government of Pakistan, the watershed came when the WFP stopped providing free food to refugees in September 1995. Increasingly, the burden of supporting the refugees fell on the Government of Pakistan. Donor fatigue led to a lack of UNHCR and WFP resources resulting in programme cutbacks which in part were intended to stimulate the spontaneous repatriation of the refugee population. At about the same time there was an influx of refugees from the northeast of Afghanistan with the fall of Taloqan to the Taliban. Cutbacks in funding left the UNHCR unable to cope with the sudden influx. (The UNHCR used to maintain an emergency reserve to cover such eventualities but donors had not contributed to it for a number of years). Abbas Sarfraz Khan, the Minister for Kashmir, Northern Areas, SAFRON and Housing Works with responsibility for afghan refugees told us that it was at this point that refugees, having realised they could no longer get WFP support, began leaving the camps and moving to cities. The cutbacks in refugee programmes by UN agencies provoked a reaction from the Government of Pakistan which closed its borders and began deporting refugees. Thus, a lack of interest by the donor community at a crucial juncture destroyed almost twenty years of goodwill, and created the lasting legacy of today's closed border policy.


34. Afghanistan's neighbours have all maintained closed border policies despite appeals by the international community and UN agencies, particularly the UNHCR, for borders to be opened. The closed border policies stem from the international community's lack of support for the countries who have borne large refugee populations for a very long time but they also reflect security concerns about the destabilising effect of large outflows of Afghans on the surrounding region.

35. It is thought that some 100,000 to 135,000 refugees have crossed into Pakistan since September 11[56]. Many either had visas or paid smugglers to get them across the border - neither option would be open to the poorest and most vulnerable families. The communities on either side of the border are very closely linked and most of the refugees are integrated into the local community or are housed in existing camps. Despite the Government of Pakistan's rigid closed border policy, a few of the most vulnerable refugees have been allowed to cross and are being looked after in the Killi Faizo staging camp in Balochistan. Pakistani authorities monitor the official border crossings but there are numerous unofficial crossings where most of the refugees entered Pakistan. These refugees are the 'invisible' refugees - they are not registered and have no access to the facilities provided to other refugees in camps.

36. The Government of Pakistan has delegated responsibility for siting new refugee camps to provincial and tribal authorities; they in turn have been determined that new camps should be remote from existing refugee populations and close to the border. The process for establishing the camps has been bureaucratic and slow. Given the history of the international community's support for Pakistan's refugee legacy, it is hardly surprising that the Government of Pakistan is not eager to establish new camps. However, there has been some progress in establishing camps; a small number have been opened in the federally-administered tribal areas in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan and one in Balochistan. The Government of Iran has shown a similar reluctance to set up new camps with most of the sites it offered being in a no-man's land between the Iranian and Afghan borders.

37. The one and a half million refugees originally anticipated never materialised. Sakandar Ali of Islamic Relief gave a number of reasons for this: the treacherous journey to get to the border; the lack of money to transport often large families; and the widespread knowledge that borders were closed[57]. Despite the difficulties in establishing camps, it appears that there is now sufficient assistance being provided in Iran and Pakistan to cope with current refugee numbers and any foreseeable exodus (the UNHCR has capacity to handle another 350,000 refugees in Pakistan). Coping with them now and dealing with them in the longer term are two different things. We can understand Iran and Pakistan's reluctance to accept large numbers of refugees; donors must ensure that the long-term refugee problem that faces both countries is resolved as part of the reconstruction and rebuilding of Afghanistan. Only through responsible behaviour on the part of the international community and donors can the trust of the governments of Iran and Pakistan be regained and a recurrence of the problems posed by their closed border policies avoided.

38. During the Kosovo refugee crisis, the UNHCR was thought to have adopted an unnecessarily defensive approach, a bunker mentality. This time, UNHCR's response in Afghanistan, to its credit, has been more open. UNHCR told us during our visit that it had learned a number of lessons in Kosovo and was now trying to engage more with donors, be open to challenges and debate, be more honest about operational constraints and be more sympathetic to the concerns of host governments. It also felt that it had been able to better plan and prepare for this crisis.


39. During this crisis, most of the vulnerable people chose to remain in their homes, lacking the resources or strength to become displaced. These people are referred to as internally stranded or 'stuck'; people with little or no access to food and water at home but who lack the assets or strength to move elsewhere to seek assistance[58]. Those who have had to move have become displaced rather than fleeing the country as refugees. Sakandar Ali noted that where people had a choice they preferred to remain with friends and family while recognising that this imposed a burden on already stretched households. He was concerned that such local coping mechanisms would eventually start to break down[59].

40. The UN estimates that there are between five and seven and a half million vulnerable people inside Afghanistan. This estimate may increase once there is access to those areas still affected by conflict and an assessment is made of numbers of people who have been displaced by the conflict or whose livelihoods have been further damaged. Table 6 shows a breakdown of refugees, IDPs and Internally Stranded Persons (ISPs).

Refugees in Iran pre-11 September
Refugees in Pakistan pre-11 September
Refugees elsewhere in region pre-11 September
New refugees in Pakistan since 11 September
New refugees in Iran since 11 September
Current estimated Internally Displaced (IDPs)
Current estimated Internally Stranded (ISPs)
UN projected further IDPs/ISPs
Projected Vulnerable Total
7,500,000 (rounded)

Table 6: Populations in need of humanitarian assistance/protection[60]

(All figures should be treated with caution)

41. There has been a complex pattern of displacement within Afghanistan as a result of the drought and then the conflict. The initial movement was the result of drought but this was followed by a second displacement away from urban areas towards either the border or rural areas[61]. This second movement of people was driven by fear, conflict and bombing. It is difficult to get a clear picture of the current IDP situation but IDPs seem to be clustered around a dozen locations with a small number in camps around Herat, Chaman and Jalalabad. The largest concentrations of IDPs are near Jalalabad and Mazar-e Sharif, with fewer in the south near Qalat, Kandahar and Spin Boldak[62]. The situation is changing rapidly and there is still no clear information on the impact that the fall of the Taliban and the advance of the Northern Alliance has had on IDP numbers. In its memorandum, DFID said that military developments were allowing some people to return home[63] but in November there was some evidence of new displacements away from areas of ongoing conflict (Kandahar, Kunduz, Mazar-e Sharif). It is certainly true that the people displaced because of conflict will return home once security around their homes improves. However, those people displaced because of food shortages are unlikely to return home unless they can be sure of access to the food they need. Friends and relatives are supporting many of the IDPs. This must have an impact on the food stocks that these families have set aside for the winter and could lead to a further food shortages and a weakening of traditional coping mechanisms.


42. With Pakistan's and Iran's borders closed there were build-ups, in the border areas, of people trying to flee. In response, two camps, Makaki and Mile 46, were established by the Iranian Red Crescent inside Afghanistan near the Iranian border and one camp was established near Chaman at Spin Boldak. The UNHCR was unwilling to provide support for these camps as there were no systems in place to ensure the civilian nature of the camps and no safeguards to prevent the Taliban or the Northern Alliance from using the camps as recruiting grounds. Where humanitarian relief is needed, an appropriate humanitarian space has to be created. Rwanda provides an only too clear example of the problems caused by military infiltration in to refugee or IDP camps.

50 Back

51  UNHCR Afghan Refugee Statistics, 10 Sept 2001, Back

52  Islamic Republic of Iran in Short, UNHCR 2001 Global Appeal, Back

53  Ev 42, [Para 3] Back

54  UNHCR Afghan refugee statistics 10 Sept 2001, Back

55  Q94 Back

56  Ev 116, [Para 27] Back

57  Q76 Back

58  In their memorandum DFID included a colour map showing IDP and ISP locations at 13 November. This is reproduced Vol II, Ev 124, [Annex F] of the evidence. Back

59  Q76 Back

60  DFID Afghanistan Crisis: Situation Report, 28 November 2001 Back

61  Q76 Back

62  DFID included a map of IDP populations in its memorandum. See Ev124, [Annex F] Back

63  Ev 115, [Para 25] Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 20 December 2001